The Confederate Coal Torpedo ( a little known fact )


Forum Host
Oct 10, 2012
Mt. Jackson, Va
In the 19th century, a “torpedo” meant any kind of bomb, so the “coal torpedo” designed by Captain Thomas Edgeworth Courtenay in 1864 was exactly as advertised—a gunpowder bomb disguised by genuine pieces of anthracite coal and deployed as a weapon of sabotage by the Confederacy’s Secret Service Corps against steam powered Union vessels.

The torpedoes were manufactured at the 7th Avenue Artillery shop (across the street from Tredegar Iron Works) in Richmond, Virginia, in January 1864. The manufacturing process was similar to that used for artillery shells, except that actual pieces of coal were used as patterns for iron castings. The walls of the coal shell were about 3/8 inch thick, creating a hollow space inside sufficient to hold 3–4 ounces of gunpowder. After filling, the shell was closed with a threaded plug, then dipped in melted beeswax and rolled in coal dust, creating the appearance of a lump of coal. Finished coal torpedoes were about 4 inches (10 cm) on a side and weighed 3–4 lb (1.5–2 kg). The size and powder charge of the coal torpedo was similar to a 6 pound Shrapnel shell.

The bombs were loaded or smuggled into coal supplies in ships. When workers stoked the furnace, the bombs exploded. Two ships are known to have been damaged by coal torpedo detonations (the U.S.S. Chenago and Private Steamboat Greyhound). Another sabotage attempt was made against the Springfield Armory by putting a timing fuse on a coal torpedo, but the bomb was discovered in time. In April 1865, most of the official papers of the Confederate Secret Service were burned by Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin just before the government evacuated Richmond, making it impossible to determine with any certainty how many ships were destroyed by Courtenay's shell.

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Mike d

Apr 25, 2012
I recently saw one of these on Jeff Davis's desk at the Confederate White House in Richmond. Much smaller to see in person than I thought it would be!
Has anyone ever made recasts of these for collectors???